In August of 2006, Sassy Mohen began pre-production on her first independent feature film, HAPPY HOLIDAYS when she was still a junior in film school at Chapman University. Denied support from the school because the project was “too ambitious," the film would go on to turn a profit, screen in indie theaters around the country and get worldwide distribution with IndieFlix. She credits this to their (then) unorthodox marketing campaign utilizing brand new social media platforms, youtube, twitter & facebook.
Sassy jumped at the release of innovative new equipment such as the red camera, the digital SLR, 6k and was the first filmmaker to create a narrative short with audio on Google Glass. Her resourceful and confident style has emerged as a pioneer in the genre of female-driven comedy. She was quick to adopt the web series as a dynamic and affordable medium, winning accolades with her rom-com ABOUT ABBY.
For Sassy, it’s not about the razzle-dazzle of what’s next in technology, but showcasing quality entertainment with the most effective and accessible means for its audience. Beginning with Happy Holidays, she has utilized social media from day one, leading her to create digital media & branding company, ARDENTLIFE MEDIA
In 2017, she was tapped by FX for the online web channel, THIS IS AOK, to write, direct, produce and edit their online comedy shorts. This propelled her into an auspicious commercial directing career, working with a variety of film production companies, brands, apps and colleges such as, BLUE DIAMOND, PEPPERIDGE FARM, HELLO KITTY, ADVANCED ROOM, PROPPER DALEY, MOTISPARK & SABIO.
Since 2006, Sassy has written, directed, produced and edited two FEATURES, multiple award winning SHORT FILMS, TV PILOTS, COMMERCIALS, MUSIC VIDEOS, SPECS and WEBSERIES. Her most recent short, FEAR ACTUALLY was released in April 2020 to rave reviews including winning BEST FEMALE DIRECTOR at the NIAGARA INDIE FILM FESTIVAL, the FANTASTIC INDIE FESTIVAL of LOS ANGELES and the TORONTO INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL, among other festival wins and is available to watch ONLINE. Currently, she has just wrapped production on her newest venture, digital series, "How to Hack Birth Control," due to be released this summer 2021.
We had the pleasure of speaking to Sassy about her short film. Fear Actually is about a world heading into an apocalypse thanks to President Trump tweeting the nuclear codes, Pennywise the Clown (IT) finds himself lost. His girlfriend Effie has become numb to his creepy scares and replaced them with the endless thrill of cable news. The same holds true for the other movie monsters in Pennywise’s support group who must find new purpose and self worth. As Pennywise wanders the dark, lonely streets, can he get his mojo and Effie back?
How did you start making films and what was the first film project you worked on?
I’ve wanted to make films since as far back as I can remember. The roots of this come from the fact that my parents both work(ed) in tv. My mom worked at various channels and shows like Sesame Street, National Geographic and Discovery, my Dad worked at CNN as one of their lead audio engineers for over 20 years, so I basically grew up in a television studio. In 2nd grade, I somehow managed to talk my teacher into letting me shoot and “direct” an episode from the power rangers tv show… as my science fair project. Maybe it qualified because technical equipment was involved? Who knows, but I’m really glad she said yes, because it really began to click for me that this was something I enjoyed doing.
The next year my parents enrolled me in a TV production class and from there it was just a natural progression. My middle/high school HB Woodlawn was all about student empowerment. They really hammered in the idea that if you have a dream or goal, you absolutely can achieve it, but only if you take on the responsibility and hard work to make it happen. So they didn’t just tell us that all our dreams could come true, but they gave us the tools to try and achieve them. They also made a point of fostering any of the students' ambitions who voiced them. So when I said I wanted to be a director, they let me assistant direct the high school musical when I was in 7th grade which led to me actually directing plays as well as letting me take tv production class at a vocational school as an elective. That’s not to say all of these steps were easy. Let’s remember that this was the 90’s/00’s and outside of my safe high school, tv/film was (and still is) dominated by men. I recently found some VHS tapes of the films & shows I made from that time, and it’s striking to me that it was always me, one other girl and a room full of boys. This ratio continued through college/film school at Chapman University where it was almost impossible for me to be heard.
And speaking of Chapman, that was where I made my actual first film project, an independent feature film called ‘Happy Holidays.’ At the time, I was getting so frustrated with the entire system of film school and then I learned that you weren’t even guaranteed a spot to direct for your junior and senior thesis. Which added up like, okay 1) I rarely get selected for anything in these classes because for whatever reason the almost all male professors favorited all the male students, even when it came to grading projects and 2) even if I did get selected, I would be walking out of college with essentially the same product as every other film school student and how was I supposed to get a job from that? So, I had the *brilliant* idea (please read the sarcasm there) of making a feature film when I was 19. I mean how hard could it be? The answer was VERY VERY VERY HARD. Starting with the fact that even after I had the full cast and crew lined up, Chapman denied us any access to school facilities on the grounds the project was ‘Too Ambitious.’ Regardless of whether or not they were right (they were,) I fought tooth and nail for them to agree and eventually after securing a meeting with a very bewildered Dean of the film school (how did she get in here was his facial expression,) they gave me a green light. It took through the end of my senior year but hot damn did we do it.
We raised all our funding online (pre-kickstarter) by using a brand-new medium called youtube where we put up behind-the-scenes podcasts, which we then promoted on other new networks like facebook and twitter. By the time the film was done the website had clocked in over 100K hits worldwide, we took the film on a tour around the country, made our money back and eventually were one of the first films streaming online through IndieFlix. Doing this while personally being 100% broke, not owning a car, taking a full class-load and not to mention being a teenager/young adult and all the chaos that comes with that was maybe the most challenging thing I’ve ever had to do in my life. I nearly gave up countless times, it honestly would have been easier in the short-term if I had. But as it turns out, HB was right, you really can do anything you set your mind to, as long as you do the hard work that comes with it. And I think the current film careers of Happy Holidays post-production team speaks to the drive and determination of everyone involved. I was very fortunate to find talented people from Chapman, USC and UCLA film school who all joined up for the reason I started it, because film school didn’t allow you to do something bigger. The composer of the film just won an Oscar for scoring Black Panther, the editors are both doing amazingly well in the industry, and somehow we all found each other when we were young and reckless in 2007.
What was the inspiration behind the making of your film?
If you wanted to sum it up in one sentence I would say the 2016 election & political climate, but there’s a lot more to it then that. Growing up literally inundated with the news not just because of my parents work, but because I lived in Washington D.C., the whole cable news transition from the 90s to today has been eye opening to say the least. In the beginning of the 90s the news was still, dare I say, factual? Not as much ratings & profit driven but actually concerned with getting you, the viewer, the news, no matter how bloody or sad or occasionally uplifting it was. And then it all took this very twisted right turn that anyone who was paying attention to news & politics as a whole could easily predict where it would end up, which is exactly where we are today.
In 2017, I had approached Kyle Sullivan (the co-writer of Fear Actually) who had been instrumental with helping me develop the storyline of my TV Pilot Weedland (www.weedland.tv) just telling him I was restless and really wanted to make something. He presented me with this script about Pennywise the clown going through an existential crisis because of the trump administration which I thought was hysterical. The script was originally very different then the final product, but I saw what it was saying at its core which is that America had a brand new set of demons that we had to confront and stop ignoring. I asked him if I could kind of run with it and he said yes, so I did. Also, during that time the sort of mainstream ‘gaslighting’ had really just begun taking off and there were still people out there arguing that what trump & his administration were doing with separating babies from parents, ripping up the environment, rolling back women’s rights, was somehow moral, legal and justifiable. It got to a point where I would wake up and read the news thinking “Am I the crazy one here? Is anyone else reading this?” So many crazy and unimaginable things happening just one after the other after the other after the other, which I guess was the point. So in the script I just hyped that up. We took headlines that were really happening and then amplified them x100000, and the irony of looking back on it now is that in so many ways the bullsh*t we made up actually happened. One of my favorite jokes in the film is one of the newscasters says, “Manatees went extinct last night. According to their mass suicide note, they felt the ocean temperature rising and decided to quote, “get out now before sh*t gets real.” And kid you not, just a few days ago I opened up this news article about manatee’s on the verge of going extinct off the coasts of Florida because of sea level temperatures rising and them being forced to migrate.
What is the most challenging aspect of being an independent filmmaker in the film industry?
This is an awesome question but I feel like it needs an asterisk for any filmmaker who isn’t a white male (no offense guys, I love a lot of you, but let’s get real.) As an independent female filmmaker you have two strikes against you 1) ‘independent’ is largely a code word for you have no funding and 2) you have a vagina. In the beginning, the most challenging aspect is just being heard and having people take you seriously. I recently unearthed an article written about Happy Holidays in the Chapman newspaper that says this “However, senior Alex Todd feels that her efforts and certainty of the film’s success are unfeasible and unrealistic. ‘She’s asking people to devote a huge amount of time to filming the movie and these students are too inexperienced to know what they’re doing for a project that is too big at a student level, especially for people that haven’t previously done a bunch of short films.’” Here’s the thing, he’s right about that if I was just some dumb kid who thought, “Hmmm, I know what sounds like super easy and fun, let’s like get a camera and like make a movie and then get totally famous.’ But, (as I’d never met this person,) if he had bothered to spend 5 minutes with me and actually listened to what I had to say, you’d understand that I was as serious as hurricane Katrina.
Sexism in the film industry has gotten lightyears better since the #MeToo movement, but the amount of times since then (up until a few years ago) that my abilities and determination have been questioned or worse laughed at as a childish dream is mind-blowing to me. So we’re talking from 2006- 2016, during a time where I made another feature, award winning web-series, music videos, short films, tv pilots and actually had paid directing work from reputable clients under my belt, I was still getting second-guessed while at the same time watching equally talented male counterparts get agents and higher budgets. Finally after I made my tv pilot in 2016, things started shifting and now I just made a $40K+ digital series called ‘How to Hack Birth Control,’ that I’m in the process of selling while also having the privilege to direct/produce/write/edit legit commercials and streaming shows. So all the times in the past that I had to decide between whether to buy food or fund a film, that part was easy because there is no plan b. Getting strangers and even people I know to understand that I’m serious, despite seriously working toward being a professional filmmaker since the 3rd grade, has been the hardest part.
How difficult is it to fund indie short films?
Hahahahaha. Well, I’ll tell you, it’s very difficult to do if you have no money. But it gets easier at every pass. You start learning (usually the hard way,) what is a waste of money and what isn’t. I feel like a lot of people get hung up on numbers when they first get started because having a flashy budget to tote around is ‘cool,’ but what’s cooler is actually having a finished film. Since I started out having no budget to work with when I was younger, I had no other choice but to learn how to make a film without having a budget. And then you make something and people see it and next time around, it’s easier to get a free location, or free set dec or a higher caliber crew teammate for a cheaper rate because you do a trade off for them. The sad matter of it is though, unless you are extremely lucky, it really does come down to money. Arguably not as much for the production itself, but for post and distribution.
Through my personal experience though, if you make your film a fun yet still well-executed & professional experience for everyone involved, you get a good product and it becomes that much easier to get a little bit more funding the next time around. You also have to be realistic when it comes to the funding you actually have. If you only have $1,000 to make a film and your script has a car explosion in it… you have to cut the car explosion no matter how cool it looks in Fast and Furious. In the original script for Fear Actually, Kyle had Pennywise try to hang himself from a ceiling fan, the ceiling fan breaks off and slams him to the ground, saving his life. I told Kyle right away that there was no way we could pull that off with a $3,000 budget. It’s just not possible. Kyle was disheartened because a big attempted suicide was a major plot point for him but I told him to let me think about it. I remembered that one of my friends' houses had this really awesome spacious bathroom with a sunken bathtub and that I also had a new toaster en route in the mail. I remember looking at my sad old toaster still in my kitchen and the answer was obvious. We re-wrote pennywise’s attempted suicide to be him throwing a toaster in the bathtub (which in hindsight is way funnier,) and the scene cost us $0. We didn’t even need to get the actor a new costume after getting it wet, because we shot the scene last. So while funding an indie short film, especially for beginners, is insanely difficult, making a good indie short film for next to nothing (with the right team-mates) is easier than you think. The key to that though, is knowing what you’re doing.
Please name three of your most favorite directors. How have they been influential in your work?
Tom Twyker changed my life with Run Lola Run. Not only was that one (if not the) first film I saw with an unapologetic strong female lead, but the whole structure of the story and his use of music and editing was a calling card to the type of films I never knew I was dying to make. Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire and her whole mantra about making films that elevate the female perspective is mind-blowing, I’m so in awe of her. Lastly I’d have to go with Kevin Smith who redefined what low-budget filmmaking can do with Clerks. Also, wild card, I love historical documentaries so Ken Burns is always in my top 5.
How did your film go into production and how did you finalize the cast and the crew?
I wish I could tell some crazy story about the whole thing, but there isn’t one. It all went surprisingly smoothly and according to plan. If you want a crazy story, we can go back a few projects because, man, were those crazy. But that’s sort of the point, right? You have to take chances and make mistakes and then learn to never EVER do them again.
The DP of Fear Actually, Shawn Leister-Frazier and I have been working together since TV production classes in high school and we’ve definitely been through the trenches together. A lot of the cast I’d worked with already or they were friends of friends and every one of them was a privilege to work with. We only had to audition for the role of Effie which Tory Taranova did a fantastic job in.
The only unexpected issue we had with casting was I asked an actor that I had previously worked with to play the Babadook and he originally said yes. Then after learning more about the role, he told me he didn’t believe in gay people so he couldn’t do it, (surprisingly, not the first time that’s happened to me, but we don’t have time to begin to unpack that.) At the time I had just started dating an actor named Vince Yearly two weeks prior and I asked him if he was interested. And thank god I did because he NAILED the part and quite frankly, really impressed me. I don’t know if it was that Harvey Feirstein voice he surprised me with on set or what, but almost four years later we’re now engaged and not only has he acted in all my projects since, but we’re also now co-producers, business partners and life-time teammates.
How was the film received by your audience and film festivals and what is your plan for further distribution of the film?
The film has gotten an awesome reception by the audience, I love all the accolades it’s getting because the cast & crew involved are all insanely talented and deserve it. One aspect in particular that makes me happy is how well received the support group scene is. The script for that scene originally was only one line of pennywise saying “The only person I have to scare is myself.” I felt like there was a lot of room for something funny there, but at the same time it was a support group, so it actually had to be heartfelt or else it would come off as slapstick and cheap. For rehearsal, I had all the actors go in a circle and talk about how the 2016 election had personally affected each of them. It was obvious, but still disarming to hear how everyone’s grasp of reality had been so fundamentally shaken. I then gave each of the actors a “real problem” relative to their character and asked them to translate those raw emotions they felt from the election into it. I’m really pleased with the way it paid off and the awesome performance each of them gave.
As for the distribution, not to diminish Fear Actually, but it’s plan is what’s already happened. Getting it online and getting it out there to whoever will check it out! Between you and me (and now everyone) the film was finished in 2018 but we postponed releasing it. When the pandemic hit, I thought, why not just release this online? There is literally nothing to lose, and I am so happy I did and that people are enjoying it as much as they are! It's funny looking back on it now, 3 ½ years after we shot it and knowing how much I’ve grown as a filmmaker since then. Honestly, the reaction Fear Actually is getting makes me that much more excited to sell my next digital series because, while I did my best at the time, my abilities since Fear Actually have grown in leaps and bounds, largely because of the doors that project opened for me, like getting to direct for FX online, editing L’Oreal commercials, producing streaming tv shows. When we wrapped Fear Actually, which was the first film I ever made that had somewhat of a budget to work with, I remember thinking, if I can do this with that, I cannot wait to see what I can do with more.
What do you recommend to other filmmakers regarding the making and the distribution of independent short films?
Rule #1: Listen to constructive criticism. I’m not talking about the bullsh*t that people say to tear your down, or something unfounded, but if someone that you know has a solid grasp of an aspect of filmmaking, whether it’s writing, editing, whatever, and they give you constructive criticism in that specific medium, listen. It’s not a personal insult to you, it’s constructive criticism of how to make your idea better. Also, listen to your audience… but do that with a grain of salt. I remember when I was making Happy Holidays, my editor suggested we do test screenings to get feedback. Now, as an editor also, I understand that he was most likely doing that because I wasn’t listening to his editing suggestions. But, no matter the reason, I’m so happy he did. The first test screening we had the audience hated it. I actually got in a fight with one of my friends mom’s who came to watch it because she hated it so much. I was FURIOUS, who were these people who hadn’t even seen Citizen Kane to tell me that my film was bad!! But…. then I reread the questionnaire they all filled out and started looking at the film from their perspective and saw that a lot of what they were saying was right. We re-cut the entire film and did another screening where people started to like it more, then re-cut again, then the next time people liked it even more and it eventually got to the final product. First thing I do when I finish a script or an edit, is I send it to at least 5-other people, because I may think something is awesome, but I’m only one person. My goal as a filmmaker is to take a concept and make it as appealing to watch to as many people as possible. It doesn’t diminish my joke or plot-point if it’s completely re-written or even if the actual line is cut entirely, the concept will still be there if it’s in the heart of work and it’ll end up being 9x times better then clunky dialogue ever could be.
As for distribution, I would say there are two key aspects of it, at least in my experience thus far. #1 is reaching out to as many people as humanly possible, it doesn’t matter who/what/where/why, throw it at a wall until it sticks. Every time I’ve gotten distribution it’s from somewhere I least expect to be. #2, your film is nothing without online packaging. You have to have a solid website, SEO, poster, press packet, social media presence and you have to have everything ready to go, because no one company is going to want the exact same thing as the other, and the last thing you want to do is say “Ohh, hang on, let me get back to you with that in a week.” Yeah, paying for that stuff is expensive, but it’s not expensive to teach it to yourself. It may not be flashy, have anything to do with making movies and take a lot of time, but whether you want it to or not, online branding matters especially if you’re trying to break in.
What is your next film project and what are you currently working on?
My next film is called “How to Hack Birth Control” It’s a three part digital series that we miraculously shot this past November 2020. Actually, it wasn’t miraculous, we just spent months preparing with covid safety and actually listened to scientists/doctors/medical experts when planning. Turns out if you socially distance, test, sanitize, thoroughly plan and educate, you can have a 10 day, 50+ person film shoot and no one will get covid. Go figure.
The film is a comedy, educating women on how to navigate birth control in America today but all told through hysterical dialogue and awesome visuals so you don’t realize you’re actually getting fed information. We have a seriously phenomenal cast & crew that are all up-and-comers and some who I would even say have definitely already arrived. The series deals with the facts of different types of birth control but also, how and where to hide your birth control, how to deal with a pharmacist that won’t sell you the morning after pill, and how to deal with crazed right-wing protesters on your way into a women’s clinic. It’s what the title says: How to hack birth control. Being a woman today has tremendous freedoms and choices that weren’t around even 10 years ago, but all of that comes with a ton of hidden and not so hidden negative stigmas & deterrents from society. As a kid (if you’re lucky) you’re taught how to use a condom, but no one teaches you how to deal with a guy you really like trying to coerce you into not using a condom.
My purpose with filmmaking has been and always will be to try and make the world better for women. That’s probably why films like Run Lola Run spoke to me so much when I was growing up and what I hope that women/kids/pre-teens, etc can take from How to Hack Birth Control. The issue for women isn’t and shouldn’t be whether or not to have sex, the issue is, how to do that safely with your income/living situation in a way that doesn’t put your health or livelihood at risk. Unlike my other films where you make them and sort of cross your fingers hoping the right person comes across it, this one actually has a few viable pathways in terms of being purchased and distributed that I don’t want to jinx. Right now we’re in the middle of post-production and scheduled to be finished by April/May 2021.
Why do you make films?
Because I want to help girls and women find the strength to make their dreams a reality. It is so easy for women to be steamrolled over, it’s literally all around us. Look at our last VP debate, “Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking.” Story of probably every woman's life. There is an inherent guilt shoved on you that comes with being a woman and wanting to pursue something more than making a baby. I’m not knocking making babies, I’m talking about when I tell people about my dreams and they respond with “But what about your family.” Men don’t get that. Just because you’re born with a vagina does not make you any less competent or worthy as those who aren’t. My hope is with all my films, that women or anyone that isn’t fitting in with a cookie cutter traditional society standard, watches one of them and feels a little bit more empowered to truly be themselves.
I would also like to add a big thank you to Toronto Film Magazine for featuring Fear Actually and for the work you do spotlighting indie films! It’s really an honor to be included among the ranks.